Tortillas and Chile Rojo = Labors of Love

Every two weeks this winter, we can be found in our kitchen cooking for the Burlington Farmers’ Market. No matter what task it is, rolling out flour tortillas, pressing corn tortillas, peeling green chiles, or toasting red chile pods, we are happy. It is an absolute pleasure to bring food that is near and dear to our hearts to the Burlington market, and we are happy that we can do it as authentically as possible.  We thought we’d give you a sneak peak into the makings of two of our most favorite foods: tortillas and rojo sauce. These are labors of love, and we hope you enjoy them!

Flour Tortillas

I hand-roll somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 flour tortillas and press around 200 corn tortillas per market week.  The recipe for the flour tortillas was created in collaboration with my Grandma Rose, who made them with love for her whole life – she didn’t have a written-down recipe, so when I wanted to take the recipe with me to college, I had to watch her make them, then scoop up each ingredient, measure it, and write it down. It took a few tweaks, but the recipe I use today is all her.  It takes me about 2 hours to make 100 tortillas, from start to finish.  I make 12.5 batches of 8 tortillas each per tortilla making day.  I have tried doubling and tripling the recipe to unacceptable results,

so I have stuck to a system of making 8-tortilla batches over and over again to ensure that each tortilla is perfect. I love the rhythm of making the 100 balls of dough, then smashing them flat and rolling them out, then hustling them over to the hot griddles, then over to cool on racks before we package them for sale. It is routine now, but every time I make them, I find I am a little better at making them round, and less like the shape of some South American country.  I have learned that that initial smash is crucial, and a technique that Grandma tried to teach me decades ago, but that I just really understood this week. I am amazed by the revelations I can still have making something so humble, simple and delicious as a warm flour tortilla.

Corn Tortillas

Corn tortillas are gluten free (we only cook them on days we don’t use any flour in the kitchen, so that they remain GF), and are made with corn masa or maseca (a contraction of masa – corn, and seca – dry). Maseca is created through a process called nixtamalization, derived from the Nahuatl word for taking dried corn kernels and treating them with slaked lime (alkali solution), making the hulls easy to remove, making the corn easier to grind, and making niacin available for nutritional purposes. I love working with maseca, as it is so easy to clean up, and I can double and triple the recipes to no detriment. Also, the house smells incredible as the little tortillas are toasting on our griddles. Nothing quite like the smell of toasty corn!  We use the corn tortillas exclusively for our enchiladas, which are made with Shelburne Farms cheddar and handmade rojo sauce. So simple, so delicious, so satisfying. Plus, you get to practice saying the word nixtamalization, which feels so cool on your tongue…

Chile Rojo

Every time I set out to make rojo sauce, I feel like I’m making something secretive. I have no written-down version of this recipe, I just simply know how to make it. This is one instance where I never second-guess amounts, ingredients, or the final product; because I know it will be delicious and perfect every time. The process to make rojo sauce is so specific and so hands-on. First, you must start by cleaning the pods – yes, that means hand-cleaning each one individually with a slightly moistened cloth to remove all traces of dust or soil. Next, you break each pod open, shake out all the seeds, and remove the stems.
 Then, you tear each pod into 1 inch pieces, then place them all on a baking sheet and preheat your oven broiler to low. When you have all your chiles cleaned, de-seeded, de-stemmed and torn on a baking sheet, you are ready to toast them. This is a very careful step and you must not be distracted while doing it, or in a matter of seconds the chiles will be scorched and all will be ruined. I really cannot tell you exactly when they are done – I just know they smell a certain way, and look slightly toasty and not at all burnt. The whole toasting process takes 90 seconds or less.

The human experience is so important here, you need to watch the chiles carefully, toss them when they are ready and smell them for that exact moment of doneness.

I am convinced machines will never be able to do this; the experience is so reliant on your senses.  When the chiles are all toasted, put them in a bowl with some minced garlic and salt, and cover with boiling water. Let sit until chiles are rehydrated and water is room temperature. The next step is a matter of some contention in my family.  Really this next step finds people in one of two camps: blender or  a mano (by hand). My dad swore that if you used the blender, you got bitter rojo. I happen to agree, but a mano takes. forever.  Making rojo sauce a mano requires you to massage the flesh of the chile from the skins and keep on massaging until all you have left is a handful of chile skins, which get discarded and bowl of delicious red sauce.

If you make rojo this way, you are also the proud owner of one warm, red hand. I leave the a mano technique for special small batches of eggs and fried potatoes, but for the 8 quart batch I make for market – you guys get a hybrid version of the two techniques, and a very happy medium, if I do say so myself: blender to simulate massaging of flesh from skin, then strain out the skins through a fine mesh tamis or sieve. This yields a great rojo, deep red and not bitter at all. Plus, I come away from the project with un-stained hands.  We use rojo sauce for our enchiladas, and also to add to the posole, a special hominy and beef stew, which is an ancient and religious experience.  I think of it as a Meso-American Pho – which really shines with that rojo sauce and all the condiments that top it; perfect with 2 warm flour tortillas.

Deep in the heart of winter, we are left with our own thoughts (hopefully in front of a fire), thinking about the things we love best – old family recipes, smells that warm your home and heart with memories, promise of dishes that satisfy, and hopefully new recipes that inspire and give you the gift of new words like nixtamalization. Happy New Year!

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